PROVO Nicole Kidman's character in the new movie "The Interpreter" is a translator at the United Nations whose fluency in an obscure foreign language uncovers an assassination plot.
The thriller, which opens today, could have added an element of credibility if Kidman's character were portrayed as a Brigham Young University graduate.
BYU is establishing itself as a major American center for language study, a goal set for the university 30 years ago by a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the school.
Consider: More than 25 percent of BYU's student body take language courses each semester. The national average is 8 percent.
"To go to one place and see so many people with that much language skill is unusual," said Mike Turner, a special-agent recruiter for the Drug Enforcement Agency. "It's a huge place for us to be. Students at other universities just don't seem to have the same interest in the position of special agent or the fluency in another language or languages."
It helps that many of BYU's students are former LDS missionaries who served overseas, but the level of proficiency necessary to be a U.N. translator or CIA analyst is beyond the capabilities of returned missionaries.
"Missionaries come home claiming fluency," said Van C. Gessel, dean of BYU's College of Humanities. "But it's fluency on a very limited range of topics, like religion and 'Where's the bathroom? ' They really do need advanced training to refine their skills."
BYU already offers more classes in more languages than most schools. For example, BYU has more student enrollments than any other school in the country in Russian, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Welsh and Cebuano. Only one other school has more student enrollments in Spanish.
But additional advanced courses will soon be available because of a $5 million donation from Arizona homebuilder Ira Fulton and his wife, Mary Lou. Gessel said the Mary Lou Fulton Chair of World Languages will help BYU "maximize the incredible potential and comparative advantage we have here with the students who come to us from worldwide church service."
In 1975, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball said BYU should become the acknowledged language capital of the world. Gessel believes BYU has been the language-training hot spot for several years but said the Fulton donation would help BYU gain notoriety as such.
One way will be through the continued efforts of the Summer Language Institute, which allows students from around the country to take advanced language courses on BYU's campus.
The Fulton gift also will fund expanded online offerings. Beginners, such as freshly called missionaries who have time before entering the Missionary Training Center, will be able to take initial courses while others could use the Web site for refresher courses.
"We have an untapped resource we can now more prominently broadcast because" of this donation, Gessel said.
It's difficult to prove just how good BYU is at training language students beyond the number of courses it offers. There is no way to track how many students are hired based on their language skills, and BYU hasn't had a way to document the actual proficiency of BYU language students.
Ray Clifford decided to fix the latter problem when he arrived at BYU last year from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. This summer, BYU will test the language proficiency of its students to compare it to national proficiency standards.
"That will allow us to compare on a factual basis the accomplishments of our student body versus other universities," said Clifford, who is director of BYU's Center for Language Studies.
Clifford said that not only do BYU students take more foreign language classes than students at other colleges, they also take more upper-division or advanced classes.
The reason the DEA, the U.S. State Department and international business and law firms are interested in BYU graduates is because while the world is shrinking, the perception that every country is or will soon be speaking English is erroneous and dangerous.
Clifford said that "when it comes to homeland security, people are discovering that while the rest of the world might be able to speak English, they don't speak English when they're talking about us."
The CIA, FBI and National Security Agency also recruit actively at BYU career fairs. Graduates find work as translators, like Kidman's film character, and as Secret Service agents, like the Sean Penn character who teams up with Kidman in "The Interpreter." Others wind up as analysts, poring over phone calls, documents and other data gathered by the nation's 13 intelligence agencies.
There are overseas posts as well.
"Foreign language skills are really attractive to us because we have about 80 offices in about 50 countries," DEA agent Turner said. "I tell applicants that as special agents with foreign language skills they're going to be using that language to conduct criminal investigations, to solicit information from folks who want to talk to us, or to interview criminal defendants who don't speak English, or working with our counterparts in other countries."
BYU is also the headquarters of the National Middle East Language Resource Center, and the advanced Arabic program is a jewel in the campus language crown.
"How many colleges in the country can offer advanced courses in Tagalog, Vietnamese or Bulgarian?" Gessel said. "There are no others. There is no need, no interest and no faculty able to do it."
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